While calling the charges laid yesterday against former Finance Minister Ashni Singh and then head of the National Industrial and Commercial Investments Limited (NICIL) Winston Brassington over land sales frivolous, former president Bharrat Jagdeo yesterday said that both acted in accordance with decisions made by his Cabinet.
“It is a Cabinet decision, which has been issued back to the Ministry of Finance and to the Privatisation Unit to execute. So, Brassington or Ashni Singh could not have executed these decisions unless the matter came [and] the recommendation was approved by the Cabinet,” a seemingly upset Jagdeo yesterday told a two-hour long press conference he hosted.
Singh and Brassington were yesterday charged in absentia with three counts of misconduct in public office over the sale of three tracts of government land on the East Coast of Demerara, between December, 2008 and May, 2011. In one instance, it is alleged that the property was sold below market value, while in the other two the deals went ahead without proper valuations of the land.
It is alleged that Singh and Brassington sold a tract of land, being 4.7 acres at Plantation Liliendaal, East Coast Demerara, which was the property of Guyana, for the sum of $150 million to Scady Business Corporation, while knowing that the property was valued at $340 million by Rodrigues Architects Limited.
It was also alleged that by way of agreement of sale and purchase, they acted recklessly when they sold a tract of land, which was a portion of Plantation Liliendaal, Pattensen and Turkeyen, East Coast Demerara, being 103.88 acres, to National Hard-ware Guyana Limited for $598,659,398 (VAT exclusive), without having a valuation of the property from a competent valuation officer.
It was also alleged that they acted recklessly when they sold a 10-acre tract of land at Plantation Turkeyen, which was the property of Guyana, for the sum of $185,037,000 to Multicinemas Guyana Inc, without procuring a valuation of the said property from a competent valuation officer.
The charges yesterday will be seen as the most serious to date against any member of former PPP/C administrations and particularly under the tenure of former President Jagdeo.
Jagdeo, who is now opposition leader, was president at the time.
After noting the charges, Jagdeo said that he found them frivolous and that they were part of an attempt by government to fulfill promises it made to its constituents during the last elections campaign.
“Today, we see two persons, who are associated with the PPP government charged, their faces are placed prominently in the Guyana Chronicle and [I] suspect the government is very happy, gleeful, not that it is rooting out corruption but that it is going to damage the reputation of two hard-working individuals. This government campaigned on a promise that they would jail all of us when they get into power because we were massively corrupt. They spoke about (us) stealing $28 billion per annum through procurement fraud. SARA [the State Assets Recovery Agency] extended that figure to $305 billion. We were told that we had assets we were not declaring to the Integrity Commission…There was a great expectation in this country, that once this government came into office that it t would do the audits, swiftly find these huge billions of dollars stolen…and that it would proceed to charge the people for the theft of money, for corruption or bribery or something of that nature,” Jagdeo said.
“The government did 50 audits and today, three years later, what do we have people charged for? Ashni Singh and Brassington were not charged for stealing money. They were not charged because this government found them with a big bank account that they can’t explain, and they were not charged for even bribery in public office. What they were charged for is misconduct in public office, contrary to common law. They could not even find a national statute to charge them under,” he stressed.
Justifying the decisions taken, the former PPP/C President said that a recommendation was made on the matters by the Privatisation Board, which was sent to Cabinet for approval. This was given and it was sent back to the Privatisation Board and the Unit for implementation.
He explained that all of the sales went through a transparent process and are logged into a compilation by the Privatisation Unit of all the sales made under his government and which was submitted to Parliament.
“These are all land sales. In the National Hardware case, there was an open and public tender… If you go to the newspapers, you would see that it was advertised for almost two months. People had an opportunity to submit bids, they received one bid and the transaction was concluded at that time. Look at the years in which these lands were sold 2008, 2009 and 2011,” he said.
“In the case of Multicinemas, we went to a public tender…the highest bid was around $16 million to Sri Yogeandra; the man who did the pageants. He won the bid and he could not conclude the transaction. So, the highest bid price, the bid was then annulled. That was for 40 acres. The bid was annulled and 10 acres was sold for $20 million per acre, which was higher than the highest bid price, at that time. The 30 other acres, we kept it for the hospital and to open up a complex there for health services, to build chalets there etcetera. It went back to the state. In the other case, it was sold for $23 million an acre,” he added.
Comparing the sales with a similar one made to the Giftland Mall, he questioned why just the three were singled out.
“Just imagine Gilftland in that same area got a price for about $12 million per acre years after this transaction was concluded. They are charging them for selling this for $23 million an acre. I don’t see the charge being laid for Gifltand because they have been cutting ribbons at Giftland. In the same area, it is almost half the price years later. It is all frivolous. We did not hide these. In 2012, we published this document, Privatisation in Tables, which showed every single transaction that we did… every single transaction, big and small that we conducted in the Privatisation Unit. A document published and tabled in the Parliament when APNU had the majority in the house,” he said, holding up the document.
And firm in his belief that the charges are just distractions for government’s current public criticisms, Jagdeo warned that government should expect similar treatment should his party one day return to government.
“…Almost this entire Cabinet will find itself in jail in the future. If this is the route they are going down,” he said, while contending that Singh and Brassington are being charged for procedural errors.
“Ashni Singh and the others are not charged for stealing money. Like the people at [the Guyana Rice Development Board], the board members, two of our MPs and others, they were charged but [for] failing to update the general ledger. Where are the billions we are supposed to have stolen and when are they charging for these billions? Why three years later all you can find is procedural errors? We don’t believe they are procedural errors too but that is all you can charge on? It is the most desperate attempt,” he scoffed.
Jagdeo said that the attempt to besmirch the characters of his two party comrades and government officials who are not living grandiose lives but were “struggling” to make ends meet is shameful since he believes that they are more honourable than any person in the current APNU+AFC administration.
“They are men of integrity and I will say that openly. I know where they are working now and they are struggling to make a living. They don’t have these billions stashed away,” the former president said.
Former President Donald Ramotar also condemned the charges yesterday.
In a statement, he said: “The announcement in the Chronicle that Dr. Ashni Singh and Mr. Winston Brassington have been charged; ‘….for alleged misconduct in public office…’ reveals the vindictiveness of this APNU+AFC regime.
“This is clearly an attempt to destroy the professional lives of these two gentlemen. Their only ‘crime’ being that they worked dedicatedly to promote this country and our people’s interests while the PPP/Civic was in office.
“As a former President who worked with these two outstanding Guyanese men, I can vouch for their uprightness, professionalism and integrity while in public office.
“This latest attack on Dr. Singh and Mr. Brassington is a continuation of the witch-hunting and the racial and political discrimination that has characterized this APNU+AFC regime since it took office in May of 2015.
“Not content in forcing these outstanding gentlemen to seek employment outside of Guyana they now seem determined to destroy their professional lives. We cannot build a country with such vindictiveness and spite”.